Mental health workers don't recognise their own burnout

Some mental health workers find it difficult to recognise their own burnout and even when they do they struggle to admit it to others says a study presented today at the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference in Glasgow.

The study was undertaken by lecturer at University at Notre Dame, Australia Ms Marieke Ledingham and colleagues Associate Professor Peter Standen (Edith Cowan University, Australia) and Associate Professor Chris Skinner (University of Notre Dame, Australia).

Ms Ledingham explained: “Burnout has long been a problem in mental health workplaces and remains so despite much research and considerable knowledge of it amongst professional employees. Despite working in this sector employees struggle to avoid burnout and we wanted to study how work places could improve support.”

A total of fifty-five mental health workers (mental health nurses, psychologists, mental health occupational therapists, social workers, psychiatrists and counsellors) wrote about their experiences in a qualitative questionnaire on their beliefs, attitudes and perceptions about burnout and how these might impact their wellbeing at work. Additionally, twelve participants were interviewed in-depth.

Participants were predominantly older female workers with 60 per cent aged 40 and over, including 33 per cent of these aged over 50.

Analysis showed that many reported suffering burnout and they felt weaker or less capable employees because of this. Some also reported that even when they recognised their burnout, they tended to blame themselves and had a difficult time disclosing it to others for fear of being judged negatively.

Ms Ledingham concluded: “It is concerning that some found it difficult to recognise burnout in themselves until signs of physical and emotional breakdown had affected their work.

“An interesting point made was that as burnout reduced their mental/physical health and work competence, it also reduced their ability to recognise that they were suffering from burnout. Therefore, once the process of depletion had begun, they were less likely to seek support and more likely to ignore the warning signs. Several commented on the irony of being a mental health worker yet being unable to recognise symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression in themselves.

“Organisations should try to help staff recognise their symptoms and seek treatment. They have a duty of care for staff that are unable to see their own situation, whether due to unrealistic or unhealthy workload expectations or factors outside the employer’s control.”

The BPS Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference takes place from Wednesday 7 to Friday 9 January at Hilton Glasgow.

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